There have been so many mediocre film adaptations of great novels which don’t even come close to capturing the magic of the original story. But there are quite a few gems out there and even though the book always comes first, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the film adaptations which follow are always completely inferior to the original work. Here is my list of the best book to film adaptations (where I have both read the book and seen the film).
We Need To Talk About Kevin (book by Lionel Shriver published in 2004, film directed by Lynne Ramsay released in 2011)
I loved this understated and creepy adaptation of ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’. The sparse style and atmosphere of the film contrasts with the comparatively “wordy” text of the book but it works. The casting of Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller as Eva and Kevin were both excellent choices.
The Hours (book by Michael Cunningham published in 1998, film directed by Stephen Daldry released in 2002)
I saw the film a long time before I finally read the book last year. Normally, if I watch a film and then read the book afterwards, I can usually understand why the book is considered to be superior but in this case, I appreciate both of them equally. The performances are consistently strong and the minimalist soundtrack by Philip Glass is excellent.
No Country for Old Men (book by Cormac McCarthy published in 2005, film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen released in 2007)
This is another film I watched before I read the book. I can’t think of anyone better than the Coen brothers to direct it. The violence is sometimes shocking but Javier Bardem as Anton was an inspired piece of casting and he is mesmerising to watch.
Matilda (book by Roald Dahl published in 1988, film directed by Danny DeVito released in 1996)
This is one of my favourite childhood books and films. Lots of Dahl’s books have been made into films but I think ‘Matilda’ is the one which really captures the spirit of his sense of humour. It is fun without being nauseatingly cute. ‘Matilda the Musical’ adapted by Tim Minchin at the Cambridge Theatre in London is also excellent.
Overall, there seems to be a fine line between what works and what doesn’t and I think a lot depends on the vision of the director and how well matched they are to the book. For example, Richard Curtis was a great match for ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ whereas the idea of that film being directed by Quentin Tarantino is out of the question (although now I think about it, I almost want to see it happen purely because it would be so ridiculous…).
I also think the most successful and effective film adaptations tend to be based on books which are more about atmosphere than plot. Adapting plot-driven novels is always a risk mostly because of time constraints and the complications which arise if important parts of the story are left out which is one of the most common complaints about mediocre film adaptations. On one hand, I can see how dividing books up into two (or more) films is necessary as it was for the final Harry Potter book. The quality of successful TV series like HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ have raised the stakes too. However, I think Hollywood is getting greedy. The final book in the Hunger Games series, ‘Mockingjay‘, will be made in two parts and I think this is purely because film companies know that they will have a guaranteed audience for it. The book is definitely the weakest in the series and doesn’t really require two films. I have neither read the Twilight series nor seen the films but I have heard that ‘Breaking Dawn’ was also pretty abysmal and shouldn’t have had the same treatment.
Adapting what I would call ‘high concept’ novels is also a risk. I groaned when it was announced ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls was being made into a film and sure enough it was a disappointment and not just because of Anne Hathaway’s appalling attempt at a Yorkshire accent (I mean, really, what was that?). There are some plot changes which are forgiveable like the ending of ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ but there is only so much you can change with a story like ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ and cram it all into under two hours (I haven’t seen the film but heard it got mixed reviews).
What are your favourite and least favourite book to film adaptations? Does it matter how closely the script sticks to the original plot or does it depend on the book? Are there some novels which should never be touched by scriptwriters? Should Quentin Tarantino adapt a trashy rom-com novel? So many questions…